US can boost gas exports, cut global emissions in one fell swoop
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Infamously, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGingrich: Trump ‘mishandled’ Rosenstein memo on Comey Trump to gift Macron framed upholstery: report Former presidents, first ladies come together to honor Barbara Bush MORE has called climate change a hoax, but the rest of the world knows better. In fact, the main reason European and Asian nations are interested in importing U.S. natural gas is to displace coal and cut greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. 

If the Trump administration truly cares about expanding U.S. gas exports, as they claim, they should maximize the competitive advantage that lower-emitting U.S. natural gas has over not only coal, but also over higher-emitting Russian gas.

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This means the administration should stop the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) attempt to rollback domestic regulations of methane emissions from gas development, and perhaps use the threat of sanctions against Russian gas pipelines (as allowed under the new Russia sanctions law) to expand U.S. markets.

 

Nations around the world want natural gas so badly because gas has less than half the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of coal. But there’s a catch: Natural gas production also involves leaks of unburned gas as methane — a greenhouse gas at least 23 times more powerful than CO2. In fact, if total gas leaks during production, transport and use of natural gas exceed 3.5 percent of overall gas volume, gas is no better than coal from a climate change perspective. 

In addition, different sources of gas have higher and lower methane leakage rates. The good news for the U.S. is that American gas has much lower methane emissions than other sources, especially Russian gas. The EPA under the Obama administration estimated that U.S. shale gas production involves methane leaks of about 1.5 percent, the lowest emissions rate of any major producer in the world. Russian gas, in contrast, comes from the notoriously leaky Gazprom production system, with leaks or “fugitive emissions” rates of at least 5-7 percent.

Ironically, Germany and other European nations — who often lecture the U.S. on climate change — depend on high-emitting Russian gas, importing a fuel that is just as bad or worse than coal from a climate perspective. Environmentalists and EU greens have been slow to pick up on this key distinction — since they are often stuck on the notion of cutting direct EU emissions rather than global emissions.

Moreover, Russia and other natural gas producers like Qatar do not report their full methane emissions accurately in the first place, so a major contributor to global emissions is not being a fully counted.

Instead of exploiting this U.S. gas methane advantage, the Trump administration and the U.S. oil and gas industry have been fighting against the very methane regulations that can give them a greater competitive edge in an increasingly climate-constrained energy marketplace.

EPA Chief Scott Pruitt has attempted to use the Clean Air Act reconsideration process to delay implementation of methane regulations for the oil and gas industry put in place under President Obama. But last month, the U.S. D.C. Court of Appeals struck down the EPA's attempt to pause methane restrictions for the sector, though the industry is asking the court to reconsider the decision and the case could end up before the Supreme Court. 

Thus, as has often been the case in its first six months in office, the Trump administration is allowing bizarre ideological purity tests (in this case, anti-regulatory policies at all costs) to take priority over achieving their own stated economic and energy policy goals. The administration has consistently attempted to increase gas exports since taking office, especially in Asia, but with limited success.

For example, U.S. companies ship only about 7 percent of China's liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports, according to a Wood MacKenzie analysis. But Chinese LNG demand is set to grow by as much as 300 percent by 2030, so lower-emitting U.S. gas could have an additional market advantage as China looks to drive down greenhouse gas emissions globally. 

The issue around new gas pipelines from Russia to Eastern Europe and Germany is, if anything, even more complicated. The Russian sanctions law just signed by the president contains provisions restricting U.S. energy firms from partnering with sanctioned Russian firms on projects in which Russia has at least a 33-percent stake. 

But the European Union has indicated that it may retaliate against U.S. trade in some manner unless the U.S. makes sure that European companies are not caught up in possible sanctions relating to Russian energy projects. Of particular concern is the possibility that Trump could use sanctions to limit Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, important to Germany’s gas supply and major German energy firms. 

Early indications are that the Trump administration is unlikely to impose sanctions on Nord Stream, yet the administration should consider using this leverage to gain greater access to German and other European LNG import markets. One important selling point should be that U.S. gas has far lower methane emissions. 

If European political leaders are not sufficiently outraged by funding Putin’s murderous regime through gas imports, perhaps they will be motivated by stark climate considerations.

The politics of Trump, Russia, natural gas exports and climate change continue to breed ironies faster than a presidential Tweetstorm. Trump’s efforts to rollback regulations on methane emissions from U.S. gas development might undercut long-term growth in the very gas export market the administration has been desperately trying to expand. 

It’s time the White House realized that lower-emitting U.S. gas development has a distinct competitive advantage over Russia and other sources of gas, one likely to become even more important as countries attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change. 

Paul Bledsoe is a professorial lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy and a strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute. He served on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.


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